Released on Netflix, romantic science fiction film “The Discovery” reveals scientific proof of life after death. But the real discovery is yet to come. When mass suicide phenomena erupts to “get there,” the meaning of death evolves. “The Discovery” eagerly trips over itself to preach on how.
In his only public interview, Dr. Harbor (Robert Redford, “All The President’s Men”), the neurologist who made the breakthrough, is asked whether he feels responsible for the thousands of suicides:“No” His face remains stoic.
That’s not it. The interview results in an on-air suicide by a crew member, and Dr. Harbor retreats into sudden and mysterious seclusion. Two years later, his son, Will (Jason Segel, “How I Met Your Mother), visits him in a repurposed mansion on an off-peak tourist island. Devotees in prison jumpsuits meditate in its dreary halls, and in operating rooms under passcode security, they die and shock themselves back to life to “reset the brain.”
To Will’s dismay, his father unveils a new device that he claims will record what the brain sees during the brief minute of death, and allow those curious to see what, really, is in the afterlife. A budding romance between Will and Isla (Rooney Mara, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”), a girl he met on the island, leads to Will questioning how their relationship fits against the backdrop of life, death and the discovery.
“The Discovery” raises interesting questions about bioethics and metaphysics, but the film exists purely as a means to that end, prioritizing philosophical musing over character development. While it successfully mobilizes serious thought in an accessible way, it does so through monologues about the meaning of life artificially inserted into dialogue. Within minutes of Will and Isla’s first meeting, the pair is already opining about the afterlife. With inherently unnatural-sounding lines, their delivery comes across as stiff, dissolving thematic development into tedium. Even as their romance progresses, they are defined more by their circumstances than by who they are.
The plot twist at the end sheds some clarity on why that is, but isn’t remarkable enough to overcome the lack of characterization throughout. Most times, the script seems exceedingly pleased with its own intelligence, and tries its hardest to create opportunities to hear itself spoken aloud.
Still, the actors do their best to personalize their lines. One of the few realistic-sounding discussions is when a supporting actor (Riley Keough, “American Honey”) talks about how it may be easier to justify murder. She sounds irritated, mentions the comment off-hand in between slips of another conversation — the idea of death has been normalized.
Also, the tightly stylized creative elements help add dynamism. The cool-toned color palette moodily matches its subject matter, setting up gorgeous contrasts between dreary shadows and glowing light. The cinematography, adds a humanizing dimension, taking special care to highlight movement through the screen in way the script fails to do. The mansion’s design, which nixes glossy futurism typical in science fiction in favor of clunky, homegrown machinery, feels believable and unique.
With a talented cast and crew, “The Discovery” had potential to be more compelling than it was. But instead of setting its philosophical dilemma as a foundation to build upon, the film did the opposite, creating an elaborate plot just to prop up one lucky writer’s conjectures. It feels hollow, and the audience never gets the chance to connect with its characters.